Wednesday 24 July 2019

From 'Heavy Gang' to Bailey case, how gardai haven't learnt lessons

Don Buckley, who exposed the full horror of the Kerry Babies case 30 years ago, says it was just one example of garda misbehaviour

Joanne Hayes of the Kerry babies case
Joanne Hayes of the Kerry babies case
Ian Bailey
Judge Frederick Morris

Don Buckley

Reflecting on the Kerry Babies case 30 years on leads to two apparently contradictory conclusions. The first is the bad news that the irregular practices of some gardai then are still evident 30 years later in current controversies like the Bailey case in west Cork.

The good news is that despite hostility from other members and superiors within the force individual gardai are still prepared to stand up against the malpractices of some of their colleagues, often at great personal cost. These days, they are called whistle-blowers and, thankfully, they have always existed.

There is a continuum of wrongdoing within the force which my colleague Joe Joyce and myself first highlighted 37 years ago in 1977, well before the Kerry Babies case in April 1984.

That was the existence of what gardai themselves called the Heavy Gang, a shifting group of members investigating major crimes and subversive activity. The Troubles in the North were at their height and the Government was rightly concerned to clamp down on the overspill of violence here. The Sallins train robbery in March 1976 was believed to be a paramilitary operation by republicans and the extreme INLA group was targeted by gardai.

Several INLA suspects were rounded up and held in different places during intensive interrogation by gardai, which resulted in signed statements admitting the robbery. The men involved claimed they had been physically and mentally ill-treated to force them to sign the incriminating statements which led to their convictions and imprisonment. They were eventually awarded large amounts of financial compensation by the State.

Gardai involved in securing those statements began to be known within the force as the Heavy Gang because of their methods and were sent by garda headquarters to help local gardai investigate serious crimes. Joe Joyce and myself, along with Renagh Holohan, began investigating the Heavy Gang towards the end of 1976 for the Irish Times.

Our reports dealing with their heavy-handed approach to solving criminal investigations were published in February 1977 in a storm of controversy. The Irish Times was attacked as unpatriotic by the then Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and the Justice Minister Paddy Cooney at the Fine Gael ard fheis later in the year when the Taoiseach made his infamous remark that "blow-ins'' who criticised the security policy of the government could "blow out" as far as he was concerned.

Our motivation in exposing these events was that malpractices by gardai in securing convictions of Republican subversives, considered by many people as fully deserved, was a dangerous habit in policing the State. Our concern then was this practice would end up being used against ordinary people with no paramilitary links to "solve" crimes that posed no threat to the security of the State.

That warning was proved correct in April 1984 when a dead baby with stab wounds was found on a beach at Cahirciveen in Kerry. Murder Squad detectives from Dublin assisted gardai in Tralee and appeared to solve the crime expeditiously when members of the Hayes family, small farmers in the village of Abbeydorney in north Kerry, were charged in connection with the death of the baby.

The crux of the Kerry Babies case was that the gardai down from Dublin had secured detailed statements from Joanne Hayes and her family confessing to involvement in the death of the Caherciveen baby and it then emerged that the baby to which she had given birth at home had died and its body was on the family farm. The gardai were left trying to explain how the family confessed to the murder of the Cahirciveen baby, a crime they could not have committed because blood tests showed the two babies had different blood groups. The forensic tests also proved the Cahirciveen baby could not have been a child of Joanne Hayes and her lover Jeremiah Locke.

The charges against the Hayes family were withdrawn in autumn 1984 on the instruction of the Director of Public Prosecution's office when it realised the claims by the gardai were not credible. On the following Sunday, Joe Joyce and myself revealed in detail over two full pages of the Sunday Independent what had happened in what we called the Kerry Babies case. It is important to emphasise here that we couldn't have exposed what had happened without information from brave whistleblowers.

Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald speedily established a tribunal of inquiry under Judge Kevin Lynch. Unfortunately, it turned into a witch-hunt against Joanne Hayes. The gardai insisted that she had had twins by two different fathers in a process they called "superfecundation".

The legal system effectively turned the tribunal intended to find out what had happened in Tralee garda station into a trial of Joanne Hayes. Judge Lynch concluded that the Hayes family had lied to the gardai but only found that the gardai had "gilded the lily" – seemingly unable to bring himself to say the gardai lied.

The garda tactics in the Kerry Babies case of 1984 was exactly what we had warned against in exposing the behaviour of the Heavy Gang in 1977 – that extracting false confessions from suspects in subversive crimes then could lead to the use of heavy-handed tactics in ordinary cases which posed no threat to the security of the State.

However, the lessons of 1977 and 1984 appeared to have been lost on more gardai since then.

In 1996, the death of a man in Donegal in what appeared to be a hit-and-run was the first visible incident in widespread malpractice by a number of gardai in that county. Intimidation, false charges and other irregular methods by detectives were used to "stitch-up" different families and individuals targeted by a significant number of gardai.

One of the features of the Donegal saga was the inability of senior officers sent from Dublin to find out what was happening because their local subordinates refused to co-operate with their senior colleagues. It took six years from 1996 to the setting up of the Morris tribunal in 2002 to start unravelling the malpractices of gardai in Donegal. The reports of Judge Morris which concluded in 2008 were scathing about the misbehaviour and mismanagement of gardai in Donegal.

Now we've had the latest series of scandals to emerge – over penalty points, the bugging of the Garda Ombudsman's office and the botched garda investigation that tried to pin the murder of the Frenchwoman Sophie Toscan du Plantier near Schull in west Cork in December 1996 on Ian Bailey.

Tapes and transcripts of conversations among members of the force in Bandon garda station and between some of them and witnesses they were trying to coax or coerce into giving false evidence against Mr Bailey have been described by Taoiseach Enda Kenny as "stark" and deeply worrying. The DPP of the day, Eamon Barnes, refused to prosecute Mr Bailey because of what he saw in the garda file on the case and again senior gardai failed to sort out the serious misbehaviour by some members of the force there.

The litany of scandals in the Garda Siochana over the past 40 years seems endless

because the lessons that should be learned each time are not properly applied. The denigration of whistleblowers still seems to be more important to the garda establishment and, worryingly in recent months, to the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter.

The establishment of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission in recent years was intended to make the force accountable through independent investigation of complaints. But it has become clear in recent months that GSOC has met with delays and a lack of co-operation by the force. This is very unfair to the majority of gardai who carry out their duties fairly for the benefit of all citizens.

They need to become more active as whistleblowers, shown the way by the brave few in each decade who have informed politicians and journalists when some of their colleagues go rogue.

Sunday Independent

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